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Pastor's Piece

The Pastor's Piece 2/17/2024

By Kevin Cernek, FCFI Chaplain

FCFI February 17, 2024

Both of my parents are from large families as are most of my aunts and uncles. I am also from a large family. There was never a shortage of cousins in my childhood and we always had lots of fun– especially when they came to the farm for a few days. My brothers and I were normally fairly well-behaved, but when our cousins were around we always managed to get into a lot of trouble. Dad would have to “take us aside” and remind us that just because our cousins were there, that did not mean we could break every rule in the book. It was our responsibility to behave properly, and when we didn’t, justice was promptly executed (and sometimes our cousins got in on it too). The only exception to the close proximity of our family members was an aunt and uncle who lived in California. As a result, we never really spent any time with them and we never got to know them very well. I would hear stories from my grandmother bestowing praises upon her eldest son who lived so far away, but that was only her word for it. When I finally got to meet him, I almost expected him to be able to walk on water. Fortunately, he did not regard himself to be quite as great as Grandma made him out to be. When I became of age, I traveled to California and spent a few weeks with my aunt and uncle at their house. My uncle had emphysema and each morning he spent about an hour or so on a respirator in the den of his house, charging up his oxygen supply. Because of his respiratory condition, he was let go from his job at the warehouse and since he was a bit advanced in age, he had a difficult time finding another job. Not one to sit around and wait for a handout, he became self-employed. Each night at about 11 o’clock as we were getting ready to turn in for the day, he would head out the door to his job, returning at about 4:00 a.m. I was quite curious about this job and asked him on several occasions if I could go along. He always said no. Finally, after much insistence on my part, he agreed to let me go with him. He explained that this was not the most ideal job in the world, but at least it put food on the table. I would need to get a little extra rest that day, so I would be fresh during our late night adventure. That afternoon I made sure I got a nap so I would be ready to go when 11 o’clock rolled around. Then, when the time came and at my uncle’s command we hit the pavement running. He pulled his ’67 Pontiac LeMans out of the garage and hitched a little two wheel flatbed trailer behind. He got a couple of broom handles from off the garage wall with a nail attached to the end, with the sharp end pointing out. I hopped in the passenger seat and away we went. That night as we traveled to our first place of business, he explained why he didn’t really want metagging along with him. You see, his job consisted of going around from business to business in Los Angeles collecting cardboard for recycling from the area dumpsters. He would drive down back alleyways, pull up to a dumpster and either dive in or poke his stick in and fish out the cardboard. As he got to know the entrepreneurs on his route, they sometimes would have the boxes flattened and tied together with string waiting for him. On a good night he would have to make several trips to collect all the cardboard. With both of us working together, we collected a lot of cardboard. Back then, the streets were somewhat safer than they are today, and we traveled around the back alleys of Los Angeles in the dead of the night without fear for our safety. We usually mostly saw the same people each night and they greeted us with a friendly salutation and my uncle proudly introduced me as his long lost nephew. That first night we went out, he told me he hesitated to let me go with him because he didn’t want to be remembered as the uncle who went dumpster diving. I could only wonder why that would bother him, because those dumpsters were chock full of treasure. You’d be amazed at what some people throw away. Half the fun of his business was the unexpected treasures we uncovered under the cardboard and trash in the dumpster. The old adage, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure” was never more true than those late nights in Los Angeles. Each morning, after a late breakfast we would take our booty down to the recycling center where they paid us cash-by-the-pound. Then we’d stop by the Farmer’s Market to purchase fresh produce for the day, then the grocery store, then the gas station, and finally what was left was deposited in the bank. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. Sadly, a short year after my visit, my uncle passed away suddenly. He collapsed at home and my aunt was unable to revive him. My suspicion is he had a heart attack as a result of the emphysema. Contrary to the fears of my uncle, my memories of him are nothing short of spectacular. We had the best of times out there in the heat of the Los Angeles nights. We took home a treasure trove of goods that not only put food on the table and paid the bills, but his garage was full of every sort of knick knack you could think of. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord,” (Colossians 3:23). (Kevin Cernek is Lead Pastor of Martintown Community Church in Martintown, Wisconsin)